Monday, June 14, 2004

IT'S ALRIGHT MA, I'M ONLY READIN'

Can someone appear in a Victoria's Secret commercial AND be one of the great poets of his time? A new book by Oxford prof Christopher Ricks says yes, and gives Bob Dylan the full lit crit close reading. I've had an advance reader's copy of this book for a while and have dipped in a bit, but it's a little daunting, so for now let's just check out Jonathan Lethem's take on Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin (Lethem is the author of The Fortress of Solitude, a novel that richly deserved every bit of hype it recieved a while back). The beginning of Lethem's review makes it clear that he's as much of a Dylan fan as Ricks:

Christopher Ricks and I share a privilege. It's one you share too, assuming you join in our almost fathomless esteem for the songs and performances of the sui generis poet-singer Bob Dylan. That is, to have had our lifetimes overlap with an artist whom stone Dylan fans like Ricks and I suspect future generations will regard, in his visionary fecundity, with the awe reserved for Blake, Whitman, Picasso and the like. This concurrence of our lives with his is a privilege that shouldn't be taken for granted: 40 or 50 years from now, one of the few questions younger people will be certain to ask of elderly witnesses to the 20th century is, ''Did you ever go to a Bob Dylan concert?'' If the reply comes: ''You have no idea what a hassle Madison Square Garden could be,'' it will certainly be met with shaming incredulity.

A Dylan book I did get around to reading was Chimes of Freedom by Mike Marqusee, which did a masterful job of setting Dylan's 60s songs in their political context. Marqusee is especially good at showing how Dylan's "sellout" electric period still had strong, if more subtle political undertones. (If only those outraged folkies back then could look into the future and see the Victoria's Secret commercial!)

I actually saw Dylan in 2002 for the first and only time (at a "cow barn" in a county fairground in Red Bluff, California). I think Bob and band might have been looser and more at ease than they would be at a bigger venue. I almost don't want to see him again for fear that it wouldn't be as good...